WHEN she opened the door and saw him standing there she was more pleased than ever before, and he, too, as he followed her into the studio, seemed very very happy to have come.
“No. Just going to have tea.”
“And you are not expecting anybody?”
“Nobody at all.”
“Ah! That’s good.”
He laid aside his coat and hat gently, lingeringly, as though he had time and to spare for everything, or as though he were taking leave of them for ever, and came over to the fire and held out his hands to the quick, leaping flame.
Just for a moment both of them stood silent in that leaping light. Still, as it were, they tasted on their smiling lips the sweet shock of their greeting. Their secret selves whispered:
“Why should we speak? Isn’t this enough?”
“More than enough. I never realized until this moment . . .”
“How good it is just to be with you. . . .”
“Like this. . . .”
“It’s more than enough.”
But suddenly he turned and looked at her and she moved quickly away.
“Have a cigarette? I’ll put the kettle on. Are you longing for tea?”
“No. Not longing.”
“Well, I am.”
“Oh, you.” He thumped the Armenian cushion and flung on to the sommier. “You’re a perfect little Chinee.”
“Yes, I am,” she laughed. “I long for tea as strong men long for wine.”
She lighted the lamp under its broad orange shade, pulled the curtains and drew up the tea table. Two birds sang in the kettle; the fire fluttered. He sat up clasping his knees. It was delightful—this business of having tea—and she always had delicious things to eat—little sharp sandwiches, short sweet almond fingers, and a dark, rich cake tasting of rum—but it was an interruption. He wanted it over, the table pushed away, their two chairs drawn up to the light, and the moment came when he took out his pipe, filled it, and said, pressing the tobacco tight into the bowl: “I have been thinking over what you said last time and it seems to me . . .”
Yes, that was what he waited for and so did she. Yes, while she shook the teapot hot and dry over the spirit flame she saw those other two, him, leaning back, taking his ease among the cushions, and her, curled up en escargot in the blue shell arm-chair. The picture was so clear and so minute it might have been painted on the blue teapot lid. And yet she couldn’t hurry. She could almost have cried: “Give me time.” She must have time in which to grow calm. She wanted time in which to free herself from all these familiar things with which she lived so vividly. For all these gay things round her were part of her—her offspring—and they knew it and made the largest, most vehement claims. But now they must go. They must be swept away, shooed away—like children, sent up the shadowy stairs, packed into bed and commanded to go to sleep—at once—without a murmur!
For the special thrilling quality of their friendship was in their complete surrender. Like two open cities in the midst of some vast plain their two minds lay open to each other. And it wasn’t as if he rode into hers like a conqueror, armed to the eyebrows and seeing nothing but a gay silken flutter—nor did she enter his like a queen walking soft on petals. No, they were eager, serious travellers, absorbed in understanding what was to be seen and discovering what was hidden—making the most of this extraordinary absolute chance which made it possible for him to be utterly truthful to her and for her to be utterly sincere with him.
And the best of it was they were both of them old enough to enjoy their adventure to the full without any stupid emotional complication. Passion would have ruined everything; they quite saw that. Besides, all that sort of thing was over and done with for both of them—he was thirty-one, she was thirty—they had had their experiences, and very rich and varied they had been, but now was the time for harvest—harvest. Weren’t his novels to be very big novels indeed? And her plays. Who else had her exquisite sense of real English Comedy? . . .
Carefully she cut the cake into thick little wads and he reached across for a piece.
“Do realize how good it is,” she implored. “Eat it imaginatively. Roll your eyes if you can and taste it on the breath. It’s not a sandwich from the hatter’s bag—it’s the kind of cake that might have been mentioned in the Book of Genesis. . . . And God said: ‘Let there be cake. And there was cake. And God saw that it was good.’”
“You needn’t entreat me,” said he. “Really you needn’t. It’s a queer thing but I always do notice what I eat here and never anywhere else. I suppose it comes of living alone so long and always reading while I feed . . . my habit of looking upon food as just food . . . something that’s there, at certain times . . . to be devoured . . . to be . . . not there.” He laughed. “That shocks you. Doesn’t it?”
“To the bone,” said she.
“But—look here——” He pushed away his cup and began to speak very fast. “I simply haven’t got any external life at all. I don’t know the names of things a bit—trees and so on—and I never notice places or furniture or what people look like. One room is just like another to me—a place to sit and read or talk in—except,” and here he paused, smiled in a strange naive way, and said, “except this studio.” He looked round him and then at her; he laughed in his astonishment and pleasure. He was like a man who wakes up in a train to find that he has arrived, already, at the journey’s end.
“Here’s another queer thing. If I shut my eyes I can see this place down to every detail—every detail. . . . Now I come to think of it—I’ve never realized this consciously before. Often when I am away from here I revisit it in spirit—wander about among your red chairs, stare at the bowl of fruit on the black table—and just touch, very lightly, that marvel of a sleeping boy’s head.”
He looked at it as he spoke. It stood on the corner of the mantelpiece; the head to one side down-drooping, the lips parted, as though in his sleep the little boy listened to some sweet sound. . . .
“I love that little boy,” he murmured. And then they both were silent.
A new silence came between them. Nothing in the least like the satisfactory pause that had followed their greetings—the “Well, here we are together again, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t go on from just where we left off last time.” That silence could be contained in the circle of warm, delightful fire and lamplight. How many times hadn’t they flung something into it just for the fun of watching the ripples break on the easy shores. But into this unfamiliar pool the head of the little boy sleeping his timeless sleep dropped—and the ripples flowed away, away—boundlessly far—into deep glittering darkness.
And then both of them broke it. She said: “I must make up the fire,” and he said: “I have been trying a new . . .” Both of them escaped. She made up the fire and put the table back, the blue chair was wheeled forward, she curled up and he lay back among the cushions. Quickly! Quickly! They must stop it from happening again.
“Well, I read the book you left last time.”
“Oh, what do you think of it?”
They were off and all was as usual. But was it? Weren’t they just a little too quick, too prompt with their replies, too ready to take each other up? Was this really anything more than a wonderfully good imitation of other occasions? His heart beat; her cheek burned and the stupid thing was she could not discover where exactly they were or what exactly was happening. She hadn’t time to glance back. And just as she had got so far it happened again. They faltered, wavered, broke down, were silent. Again they were conscious of the boundless, questioning dark. Again, there they were—two hunters, bending over their fire, but hearing suddenly from the jungle beyond a shake of wind and a loud, questioning cry. . . .
She lifted her head. “It’s raining,” she murmured. And her voice was like his when he had said: “I love that little boy.”
Well. Why didn’t they just give way to it—yield—and see what will happen then? But no. Vague and troubled though they were, they knew enough to realize their precious friendship was in danger. She was the one who would be destroyed—not they—and they’d be no party to that.
He got up, knocked out his pipe, ran his hand through his hair and said: “I have been wondering very much lately whether the novel of the future will be a psychological novel or not. How sure are you that psychology qua psychology has got anything to do with literature at all?”
“Do you mean you feel there’s quite a chance that the mysterious non-existent creatures—the young writers of to-day—are trying simply to jump the psycho-analyst’s claim?”
“Yes, I do. And I think it’s because this generation is just wise enough to know that it is sick and to realize that its only chance of recovery is by going into its symptoms—making an exhaustive study of them—tracking them down—trying to get at the root of the trouble.”
“But oh,” she wailed. “What a dreadfully dismal outlook.”
“Not at all,” said he. “Look here . . .” On the talk went. And now it seemed they really had succeeded. She turned in her chair to look at him while she answered. Her smile said: “We have won.” And he smiled back, confident: “Absolutely.”
But the smile undid them. It lasted too long; it became a grin. They saw themselves as two little grinning puppets jigging away in nothingness.
“What have we been talking about?” thought he. He was so utterly bored he almost groaned.
“What a spectacle we have made of ourselves,” thought she. And she saw him laboriously—oh, laboriously—laying out the grounds and herself running after, putting here a tree and there a flowery shrub and here a handful of glittering fish in a pool. They were silent this time from sheer dismay.
The clock struck six merry little pings and the fire made a soft flutter. What fools they were—heavy, stodgy, elderly—with positively upholstered minds.
And now the silence put a spell upon them like solemn music. It was anguish—anguish for her to bear it and he would die—he’d die if it were broken. . . . And yet he longed to break it. Not by speech. At any rate not by their ordinary maddening chatter. There was another way for them to speak to each other, and in the new way he wanted to murmur: “Do you feel this too? Do you understand it at all?” . . .
Instead, to his horror, he heard himself say: “I must be off; I’m meeting Brand at six.”
What devil made him say that instead of the other? She jumped—simply jumped out of her chair, and he heard her crying: “You must rush, then. He’s so punctual. Why didn’t you say so before?”
“You’ve hurt me; you’ve hurt me! We’ve failed!” said her secret self while she handed him his hat and stick, smiling gaily. She wouldn’t give him a moment for another word, but ran along the passage and opened the big outer door.
Could they leave each other like this? How could they? He stood on the step and she just inside holding the door. It was not raining now.
“You’ve hurt me—hurt me,” said her heart. “Why don’t you go? No, don’t go. Stay. No—go!” And she looked out upon the night.
She saw the beautiful fall of the steps, the dark garden ringed with glittering ivy, on the other side of the road the huge bare willows and above them the sky big and bright with stars. But of course he would see nothing of all this. He was superior to it all. He—with his wonderful “spiritual” vision!
She was right. He did see nothing at all. Misery! He’d missed it. It was too late to do anything now. Was it too late? Yes, it was. A cold snatch of hateful wind blew into the garden. Curse life! He heard her cry “au revoir” and the door slammed.
Running back into the studio she behaved so strangely. She ran up and down lifting her arms and crying: “Oh! Oh! How stupid! How imbecile! How stupid!” And then she flung herself down on the sommier thinking of nothing—just lying there in her rage. All was over. What was over? Oh—something was. And she’d never see him again—never. After a long long time (or perhaps ten minutes) had passed in that black gulf her bell rang a sharp quick jingle. It was he, of course. And equally, of course, she oughtn’t to have paid the slightest attention to it but just let it go on ringing and ringing. She flew to answer.
On the doorstep there stood an elderly virgin, a pathetic creature who simply idolized her (heaven knows why) and had this habit of turning up and ringing the bell and then saying, when she opened the door: “My dear, send me away!” She never did. As a rule she asked her in and let her admire everything and accepted the bunch of slightly soiled looking flowers—more than graciously. But to-day . . .
“Oh, I am so sorry,” she cried. “But I’ve got someone with me. We are working on some woodcuts. I’m hopelessly busy all evening.”
“It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all, darling,” said the good friend. “I was just passing and I thought I’d leave you some violets.” She fumbled down among the ribs of a large old umbrella. “I put them down here. Such a good place to keep flowers out of the wind. Here they are,” she said, shaking out a little dead bunch.
For a moment she did not take the violets. But while she stood just inside, holding the door, a strange thing happened. . . . Again she saw the beautiful fall of the steps, the dark garden ringed with glittering ivy, the willows, the big bright sky. Again she felt the silence that was like a question. But this time she did not hesitate. She moved forward. Very softly and gently, as though fearful of making a ripple in that boundless pool of quiet she put her arms round her friend.
“My dear,” murmured her happy friend, quite overcome by this gratitude. “They are really nothing. Just the simplest little thrippenny bunch.”
But as she spoke she was enfolded—more tenderly, more beautifully embraced, held by such a sweet pressure and for so long that the poor dear’s mind positively reeled and she just had the strength to quaver: “Then you really don’t mind me too much?”
“Good night, my friend,” whispered the other. “Come again soon.”
“Oh, I will. I will.”
This time she walked back to the studio slowly, and standing in the middle of the room with half-shut eyes she felt so light, so rested, as if she had woken up out of a childish sleep. Even the act of breathing was a joy. . . .
The sommier was very untidy. All the cushions “like furious mountains” as she said; she put them in order before going over to the writing-table.
“I have been thinking over our talk about the psychological novel,” she dashed off, “it really is intensely interesting.” . . . And so on and so on.
At the end she wrote: “Good night, my friend. Come again soon.”